Continued from 23 September
So there we were facing uncertain & agitated cattle bunched-up at the wrong end of the pen. ’Don’t worry’ said the merchant & in a flash he was over the high, gray-metal bars & back with the animals. Again, he went alongside the large, black bull & talking all the time softly to the animal insistantly moved the beast out of the corner & back down the sloping concrete to where the truck waited, it’s ramp rising up into a large, dim interior cut by the slotted light coming through the ventilation bars on its side. Luca was next in behind the animals as they moved out following the bull. I saw that Minerva the sheepdog was waiting outside the pen but at the entrance to the truck’s ramp. I went &, much against her wishes, forced her to come to a point well behind the animals reasoning that it was best that they didn’t find a large white maremmano dog staring at them as they were thinknig whether or not to enter the truck!
When a got back to my starting point with the dog, I realised, with relief, that there was no need for my presence with the cattle. Two people, moving softly & gently were more than enough. I had hardly time to consider my good luck when one of the cows, cornered & with no-where to go but up, lurched onto the ramp & in a thrice was inside the truck & then another & another & finally the bull, all rushing suddenly not wanting to be left behind.
’Quick, quick, close the doors & suddenly all hell broke loose as we rushed here & their, pulling-up bolts, cutting twine & finally swinging the large steel doors of the truck shut. ’Bang’ went the ramp as it was hoisted-up against the now-closed doors. ’Bang’ a large transverse bar locked in place, then another. Then quiet. That was it. The animals were inside & we were all OK!
Yesterday, a cattle merchant came & took away four cattle: the bull & two large & one small female. Our experience, up until now, with sending away cows or bulls, has been unpleasant. It is always our butcher who takes the beasts away. Obviously, they don’t want to get into his truck, being a butcher, he prefers his animals upside-down on a hook & is scared of them when they are free, so there is always too much pushing & pulling & those occasions when an animal has freely entered the truck without grief have been rare. We always felt that there had to be a gentler way & constantly pressured our butcher not to stress the animals but to treat them as they are treated here, but always, his fear got the better of him, & somehow the animals knew it & didn’t let themselves be steared unresistingly up the ramp of the truck & thereon to oblivion.
Yesterday was different. When I arrived at the animals enclosure, the four largest cattle, including the prime bull, were already closed together in a pen which, at one corner, had a narrow gate opening up onto the ramp into the truck. The ramp had straw spread over it.
’Maybe I can give you a hand’ I said to the merchant. I think that Luca was quite relieved to see me although we had agreed that I would stay in the wine cellar making the white wines which were busy fermenting away.
’ Yes, absolutely’ the merchant replied. ’We’re all going to get into the pen & very slowly herd the animals to the gate. Are you arfraid to get in with them?’ he asked?
’No no’ I said but, in truth, I was rather afraid recalling the words of an English country doctor who was staying at La Faula only last week & who had recounted what terrible injuries farmers can suffer by being crushed by cattle. I was particularly afraid of the bull remembering also my mother’s account of her time as a farm-girl during the war when she had to intervene to save a farmer who was being gored by a bull. I looked around & saw that there was a pitchfork handy. I took it knowing that it would provide little protection if I was charged in the pen by one of the animals but going in without would have seemed like going in naked.
’No, no, you won’t need’ that said the merchant. ’We’re just going to move them constantly & firmly down to the corner - once one enters the truck they all will. Don’t poke them, it’ll just rattle them & then we won’t be able to do anything with them. Be careful of the bull & the red cow - they can damage you terribly with their horns!’ he added.
I had one of those moments that seem fairly common at La Faula when I know that I am about to embark on some activity of uncertain outcome, but with certain, & potentially grave risks & one will only know at the end if it turned out alright or not!
The merchant was quickly in the pen followed closely by Luca. I entered slowly, almost reluctantly. The merchant went straight to the bull. In his hand he had a wooden walking stick which he wielded as if it were a shephards crook - he gently stroked the rump of the bull with the stick while making low soft clicking noises.
’’Char, char, come-on’ he repeated pushing towards the bull & obliging the animal to move down the pen. We did the same until all four, cows & bulls, were in the pen’s corner with only two ways to go: up the ramp & into the truck or, pushing through the three of us, back to the far corner of the pen from where we had shifted them.
Finding themselves in a corner, the cattle turned to face us weighing up whether we constituted enough of a barrier to block them. Realising this, I prayed that they wouldn’t put us to the test. They moved towards us. We moved towards them making the ’char, char’ sound; they stopped. The initiative was ours. The merchant returned to stroking & gently pushing the bull. &then, the younger bull started up the ramp.’Char, char’ we pushed & insisted. We stopped. Not wanting to frighten him. & then the small bull was up & in the truck. ’They’ll all go now said the merchant’ ’Char char’ but they didn’t, the other three beasts, unwilling to follow, started milling around, the small bull came down from the truck & they made a break for it, we jumped out of the way & there they were, at the end of the pen - the place from where we had started but this time, we knew, more agitated & uncertain!
To be continued
Today the spring rains have begun, all work on the new vineyard is stopped becaue of the weather & the joy to have an excuse to sleep in turns to frustration as one realises that precious time is slipping by!
The new Governor of the Bank of Italy (being the replacement of the previous Governor who was felled by a series of leaked wiretaps that showed him to have been rather too close to a banker under criminal investigation) has released a statement saying that Italy's economy is in decline which, while not irreversable, needs urgent attention from the government. This is unlikely to come, not least because there is a national election on 9 April. But this election is completely different to any I have seen. The usual hoardings that by law each Commune (municipality) must make available to the political parties to display their wares exhorting you to vote for Signor X or Doctor Y (very rarely were there woman candidates) are missing. That is because there will be no "Signor X" or "Dottore Y" to vote for. Instead, Italians will put their cross - which doesn't represent a vote, but a preference) alongside the symbol of the party they "prefer" & the party will nominate the representative that goes to parliament. Members of Parliament in the new session will thus be beholden to the party machinery & have no direct nexus with the people.
This may sound less than democratic, and it is. But it is only the beginning. The new rules are so complex that few (me included) understand them. Not only, but parties may take more than one preference in a region so a party that is strong in one region but weak in others may garner multiple preferences & send an enhanced number of representatives to parliament. Oh, & we mustn't forget the "premium" given to the party that receives the most votes. The words "diabolical" & "machiavellian" spring to mind, the very words that could - & have been - applied to the old Democratic Christians who dominated Italian politics from the end of the Second World War until the "clean hands" anti corruption investigations (but not prosecutions) forced them to re-organise. For indeed this new/old voting system was introduced by Silvio Berlusconi as the price of keeping the re-named Democratic Christians (now the "Union of Democratic Christians") in his coalition.
Yesterday was the end of Carneval which has its roots in the pagan celebration of the end of winter. Last evening we did a bit of pagan celebrating ourselves with friends & much good wine & food was consumed. One of the great - truly great - things about living in Italy is that if you are invited out to dinner you can be sure that you will drink really good wines & eat fabulous food. The only disadvantage is that with summer coming there is a fair bit of that weight put on on those cold winter's nights to be taken off!
With winter officially over, I decided not to bother lighting the "Aga" type stove that we have that uses wood to heat all the downstairs part of the house plus hot water. Given that it was also not lit yesterday this has proved to be a big mistake. The cold of the thick stone walls is drawing every bit of warmth out of our living area & we feel like the characters in "The Day After"!
Today we had the routine once-a-year visit from the Guardia di Finanza to check that our cash register has had its yearly service & that Luca fills in the official register in which we are required to record our income from the Agriturismo (in Italy the farm income is relatively lightly taxed - at least for Italy - whereas the Agriturismo is fully taxed like a hotel). As usual, there were 4 officers, the check took around 10 minutes & they were off leaving an official document showing that they had been here & all was in order (at least at that superficial level). It took two officers to sign this document plus Luca. As every public activity gets this routine visit once a year - in each case with 4 officers - you really begin to wonder if the return can justify the cost? (I wanted to take a photo of the guardia & had thought to ask them if they would mind but it seemed just that little bit too provocative!)
The new week started back in the vineyard bending & tying the vines. It's an ugly job because it's impossible to decide whether it is trying or relaxing, boring or simply peaceful, mind deadening or allowing time to think. In any case, the truth is that the wine is made in the vineyard: as go the grapes so goes the wine. So, as I will find the grapes in the wine canteen at harvest to have them in the best state possible it is better that I have the plants exactly as I want them. A problem with being outside all day, tying up the vines, is that once you get something in your head it can be very difficult to get it out. Today I suffered somewhat with the question of whether I should buy an automatic vine tier-upper or put it off until next year. On the one hand I know that it would have probably increased my speed by a third. But on the other we have our spending priorities set out for this year & the tier-upper is not one of them.
By the end of last week we had finished loading the photos that we wanted to the various galleries, slide shows etc. on the new photos page. The problem is that we don’t have a broadband connection here so it’s pretty much impossible to view what we have done. I hope, though, that the photos are interesting & pleasurable to watch &, for those who have not yet been to La Faula, they give an accurate idea of what the place is like.
Now that the daily photos, & many others, have migrate to the photos page the question is what to put in "La Faula Today" to make it interesting. The diary is pretty boring so probably won’t do. So, the BBC has kindly agreed to let me copy from their web-site reports on Italy & I will load these under some icon or another next to "A Dog’s Tale" (which I must remind myself to continue!). For people interested in Italy & what’s going on here this should be a useful summary of noteworthy developments, at least from a foreign perspective!
The website never seems to stop developing. The experience is like that of water running down-hill. At the point at which it arrives it finds new points of departure & so proceeds on its own path in a thoroughly unpredictable way. The website is the same. When you make some addition or change only then do you realise that some other avenue or function has opened to be exploited & used & so the site is changing constantly. The only problem is that it costs both in money & time. The key thing is the time needed to plan in the abstract what it is that one wants before it ever gets to the realisation stage. The money goes but one hopes that it will at least come back if the site does its job of attracting new customers.
The photo below is of the steering committee of the Picolit producers of Povoletto. To the far left, of course, is me. Next is Mauro, a businessman who keeps a very large vineyard on the hill next to us & who is currently constructing a very large wine-canteen. Then there is Giorgio, our neighbour who has the other Agriturismo in the village. He is followed by Massimo the local Marquess & Marco, a real down-to-earth wine producer who has no truck with "initiatives" & such-like!
The background is that Picolit is a sweet grape variety that produces desert wine. It is found only in the very small corner of the world around Ravosa having emerged in the distant past from some other local grape variety. Soon, the wine will be covered by the Italian DOCG - Dominazione di Origine Controllata e Guarantita - effectively a guarantee that the wine is that of the grape of the specified locality & made according to certain parameters. I should say at this point that we removed all our Picolit, being convinced that sweet wines containing both alcohol & elevated sugar levels are inimical to good health & are not something that we should be producing. I am on the steering committee because we have a web-site that our neighbours like & so (in theory at least) I am able to give some technical advice.
The DOCG guarantee, which is something decreed into law by the government (obviously, this being Italy), comes at a time when the wine industry in Italy is being pushed into crisis by increasing costs, overwhelmingly costly regulation & brutal competition, especially from the New World (being from New Zealand I’m cheering for the New World team - but don’t tell anyone!). The local Picolit producers wanted to undertake an initiative to assist market - & more importantly sell - the picolit at a price that will give a return of the investment. (to be continued)
The work to remake the old vineyard started on Wednesday. Today, we already had a visit from the Vineyards Inspector working for the Regional Authority to check that we had removed all of the old plants. He is an amiable chap but an Inspector's job is to inspect so you can immagine his horror when he found around 400 plants that instead of being immediately ripped out by the roots had been decapitated (the productive head of the vine plant is where all the gape production originates). We had effectively destroyed the plants doing this with the intention of removing them a bit later when the proper machinery was mounted on the tractor. But the plants - or at least their trunks - were still there in plain view. We were in breach of our obligation to extirpate the old plants! But he was nice to us. If we get rid of those plants straight away & call him, he'll come back & our little illegality will be overlooked.
What a mad-house this country is!
I haven’t written much in the diary recently partley because a picture is worth a thousand words, so "they" say, so I leave it to the "Photo of the Day" to speak for La Faula & partly because there isn’t much to report; our winter days are serene & without incident as we work away in the vineyard.
Today, However, something happened which really gave me food for thought. This morning we received a call from some-one we know who asked if we could go to their offices in the afternoon for a meeting. As is common in Italy, nothing is mentioned over the telephone because by now it is widely assumed that no telephone calls are secure or private (just ask Fazio, the now ex-governor of the bank of Italy). Somewhat mystified we arrived at the rather nice modern office of the small professional firm & were taken into the meeting room. There we had it explained to us that last year this firm was subject to a review by the Guardia di Finanza (the Revenue Police) who, on the basis of the size & style of the office, the number of computers, type of coffee machine etc., assessed the real income of the practice as considerably higher than that in the tax accounts & delivered a swinging tax bill. We were too polite to enquire if there was also a fine. The problem was that the economic down-turn had left the practice with much less work & the tax accounts reflected the true position of the company. There were no "black" profits to cover the tax bill & the practice went further into debt to pay-up. This year the economy really seems to be sinking into the swamp & the partners were thinking of anything they could do to assist, even save, themselves, so they made us a proposal involving a rather specialised tourist offering.
I don’t want to write about the tourist offering but it is striking that a firm of able & intelligent professionals should find themselves in such desperate straights due to, what is effectively, extortion by the State authorities. I need to mention here that this situation is becoming very common. The tax authorities are applying what is called "Sector Studies". In the case of our plumber they looked at his three employees, the size of his workshop, the size of his house & his yacht & assessed his income as significantly more than his tax accounts indicated. One of our neighbours had his income calculated on the basis of the number of wood-cutting saws & chain saws the Guardia found - he had to borrow from the bank to pay the tax. The guy who is re-making a bathroom in the house seeing that his income was going to be below the minimum specfied by the Sector Studies, one year wound-up his firm before the end of the year & the following year took advantage of a tax amnesty to declare & pay tax on income he never earned. And so the list goes on. Effectively, all small businesses in Italy are deemed not only to make a profit but they are all deemed to make at least the same minimum profit. This is of course absurd, especially in a declining economy. The top effective marginal rate of tax under this system must sometimes be more than 100%!
Apart from the fact the these events are distressing for those involved, the amazing thing is that the Government is destroying the Italian economy. There is currenty occuring a massive transfer of value from the private sector (especially the small sector) to the State sector. A State sector that is notoriously inefficient & corrupt. This is pretty much the same as what communism did in Russia - it destroyed value & the Italian government is destroying the value produced by small Italian firms.
Of course, this cannot last. I just cannot help but believe that something incredibly bad is in store for Italy.
Today, the excavator arrived to begin remaking a Vineyard of Figars on the hill behind the house. The vineyard was called "figars" which means "of the fig trees" because of the fig trees which we planted on the ends of the lines of vine plants. In between thre vine plants we planted apple trees. This vineyard was planted around the turn of the last century by the original sharecroppers who lived at La Faula & the vineyard with its grapes & figs & apples must have been a wonderful bounty in times when food was generally short & hunger common.
Keeping the vineyard had become untenable because it was not terraced & so had to be maintained wholly by hand as the slope was to steep to permit entry by the tractor. Plus over the years, as the original vine plants had died they had been replaced by every other conceivable white grape variety, often with different maturations so harvesting was a logistical nightmare. The old sharecroppers had, however, chosen well & as it is probably the best location in La Faula for a vineyard we decided to remake it in it’s original location but this time with terraces. We would prefer not to have to undertake this work immediately, but under EU rules we have a limited period of time to replant a vineyard that has been taken out of production or we lose the right to replant it (vineyards are under quota in the EU). That time runs out during this year.
I think sometimes, that you really have to be mad to set-up your own small business! Doing everything for the first time - & hoping to prevail, even succeed in your activity - is heroism of the first degree. In the spring when the canteen - & the wine in it - warm up to 20°C we will bottle our wine for the first time. What a nightmare to get the right equipment, make sure it is appropriate & works together, recover when some peices get taken back to the supplier but then their is no record!!!!
After this we have a small piece of new vineyard to create on the hill (in place of the original vineyard from the 1920's which was not terraced & therefore unable to be managed by machine) & the swimming pool & - if we survive all that - that will be it - absolutley & utterly enough. I've only just turned 46 & I'm already looking forward to retiring!
Tonight I went to a meeting at the other Agriturismo in the village. It belongs to Giorgio Clocchiati & his wife Miriam & we were there to discuss the idea of setting up a Club for connoisseurs for Piccolit, a wine made from a variety of grape found only in the hills of Ravosa & the neighbouring village of Savorgnano. Luca & I have removed all of our piccolit plants as we had too few to have an economically viable amount of wine plus we weren’t convinced about the staying power of sweet wines (too many health draw-backs, diabetes & all that). So I was there to talk about our experience of using a web-site to give our activity visibility.
As this was a kind of steering meeting there we only two others apart from Giorgio & myself. There was the local Marquess who lives in a real dinkum villa as from an Italian film. As we were talking I watched his hands & I realised, with a start, that he had the broad, strong, worn & callussed hands of a farmer. I realised that although he lives in a grand villa he must be out their keeping the lands together by working them! There was another person who I took to be a professional of some kind who, I assumed, must have some vineyard locally, probably inherited from his father. As we left, I saw his Mercedes S-class coupé so I snuck back in & asked Giorgio who this character was. It turned out that he is the owner of an enormous holding on the hill next to us. His vineyard is currently in a phase of strong expansion & he is building a mega wine-canteen. So there we were, the market the great leveler of us all. The marquess who works his own lands (although, obviously not alone, who seems happy for it), the industrialist who is plowing money into his vineyard (I did tell him about the up-coming competition from New Zealand!), Giorgio & myself (two small producers with nothing remarkable of note).
Tonight at 7.00 p.m. there was still that faint glow in the west permitted by a clear night after sunset. The days are lengthening quickly - winter will soon be over!
Some-one wrote to ask if it snows frequently at La Faula. The answer is no. These days are more typical - cold & clear with warm periods.
During these winter months the Agriturismo is effectively closed & we work in the canteen & outside in the vineyard & more generally on the farm. When the high pressure weather system settles over us, the days are most wonderful & one feels blessed to be out & free to enjoy them. During the summer I rarely get up to the hill on the farm so I enjoy every moment when I am pruning the vines up on the high terraces. Un fortunately (well, fortunately really) since Yetmir went we have decided to invest in machinery instead of people. A pair of mechanical pruning shears powered by a lithium-ion battery left me only one and a half day on the hill before the work was done!